Disinformation

Chinese citizens fight coronavirus censorship with emojis and ancient languages

After an article about a Wuhan doctor was blocked, thousands of people have used a variety of innovative means to keep sharing it

Last week, an article published by China’s popular Ren Wu magazine was scrubbed from the country’s internet. In the piece, Ai Fen, director of Wuhan Central Hospital’s emergency department, claimed that she was the first person to alert fellow medical professionals to the emergence of a new kind of virus, back in December. She added that she was quickly admonished by senior staff for spreading rumors and “threatening stability.”

The Chinese government has tolerated little criticism of its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, but internet users within the country have found a variety of innovative ways to beat online censorship. Almost immediately after the Ren Wu piece was blocked, people began to repost versions of it on the social media platforms Weibo and WeChat, using Morse code, QR codes and ancient Chinese symbols. Some translated the article into foreign languages, including Korean, Japanese, English and German, while others peppered it with emojis, making the text harder for censorship programs to track down. 

“I was looking at all the people posting different versions of the article while lying in my bed,” one internet user, who wished only to be named as Turtledove, told Coda Story via a message on WeChat. “Then I got up and started translating it into ancient Chinese writing.”

Turtledove used a combination of the earliest known forms of Chinese text, usually seen inscribed on ritual bronzes and oracle bones. They then posted the new version of the piece on WeChat. It attracted more than 40,000 views in just one hour before it was spotted and taken down.

“I think the article [about Ai Fen] is good for the country and the people. Letting more people know the information helps in containing the coronavirus outbreak,” said Turtledove.

“These are very creative ways being used to circumvent the censorship system,” said King-wa Fu, a professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong, in a phone interview with Coda Story. “Even though at the end of the day you will be censored, these posts increase the survival time of the article.”

The strategy of rewriting censored articles in forms other than standard simplified Chinese script has been deployed by social media users in the past. However, Fu says that translating the original magazine piece into foreign languages shows an impressive level of dedication. He added that even if those posts are detected and pulled down, a much bigger point is being made.

“It’s a protest. People just want to express that they are angry about the censorship,” Fu said. “People want to circumvent it. They might be unsuccessful in the end, but that’s not the point.”

While most of the rewritten articles have been removed from both Weibo and WeChat, thousands of people continue to create and share them, fueled by anger at the way the government has tackled the coronavirus crisis. A major source of resentment is the treatment by Chinese authorities of Dr Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist from Wuhan who tried to warn the public about the virus. In January, one month before he died from the disease, Li was forced to sign a document retracting his statements as alarmist and “illegal.” 

“We feel powerless,” Turtledove said of the Chinese state’s ongoing censorship campaign. “It ultimately hurts the people, for sure. The government realized Dr Li Wenliang was right after, but it was too late. If they had acted earlier, the situation would have been better.” 

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

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Wufei Yu

Wufei Yu is a Chinese journalist and contributor to Outside Magazine. He is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Chaewon Chung

Chaewon is a multimedia journalist with Coda Story. She graduated with a Master’s in journalism from Columbia Journalism School and has also reported with SCMP, BUST, Korea Exposé, and others.

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